Admittedly I started to become disenchanted with ESPN's 30 for 30 series. I felt like it was over-saturated, films were lost (including an important one on the Global NGO, Right To Play by Frank Marshall) and the content only scratched the surface of deeper social issues told through sports. This might be a shocker to some as my career IS the sports industry and in recent years I've been writing and producing sports documentaries mainly in the social issue space.
The reason I was getting frustrated with ESPN - and let me clarify by saying that some of the nicest and best people in sports are good friends and long-time ESPN'ers - the frustration was that I wanted them to do better, be better and use their global platform to really tell sports stories of social significance. And not to play to the corporate pressure of sugar-coating journalism. ESPN wasn't really taking on the heavy-hitting responsibility and I was disappointed. They backed out of "League of Denial" about concussion issues, there was a watered down version of coverage around gender inequality in women's soccer, not enough attention is given to the good work that most current and former athletes do outside of their sport on a daily basis. I just felt that the journalism was skewing more towards sensationalism than fairness. What really sent me over the edge was the recent ESPN The Magazine cover story on how Tiger Woods was using some unconventional coping methods after losing his father. The two decades of tireless work Tiger has done through his foundation was completely left out. The disgust was mounting.
Some might have felt my finger-wagging, the SMH's (shaking my head) and frustration about not covering these sorts of humanitarian social stories and narratives. The judgement was certainly building in a not-so-positive way towards ESPN. Seeing the marketing and knowing it was coming out, I hadn't planned on watching it. But after the 10th article singing it's praises, I was overwhelmed by the mega-media attention of "OJ: Made In America". Particularly a Vanity Fair article that stated this 5-part docu-series could be this generation's "Roots". So I pessimistically opened up my ESPN app on Apple TV and started to watch. To my pleasant - loved to be proven wrong- surprise, I have to overwhelmingly agree with Vanity Fair: that this is one of the most important pieces of film to watch as it relates to race relations in the US in recent memory.
Here's a short story to tell you why: one of my best friends- who is also a multi-generational Jewish Angeleno like myself, but not a sports fan - said she watched part of the ESPN series and couldn't wait to watch the rest. While we were sitting on the grass at LACMA Jazz Friday last night surrounded by the gorgeous culturally diverse faces of Los Angeles, she and I spoke about how we were shocked to learn that there were such deep racist ideologies here in Los Angeles going back decades. The real shock of it was that the disturbing discrimination in the city's government was taking place less than 20 miles from where we grew up deep in the San Fernando Valley and we had no idea, we didn't feel it or hear it despite both going to incredibly culturally diverse schools. We spoke about how "Straight Outta Compton" was also an incredibly important piece of film to understand LAPD's abusively discriminant relationship with LA's black community. And how films like "Boyz N The Hood" should be re-released to remind and teach a new generation of the unreal discrimination that took place for decades for the black community in LA.
Three other times this week I had conversations with people about this series - my Jewish aunt in her 60's living in San Diego, a Jamaican doctor in his 40's who grew up in an affluent U.S. east-coast neighborhood and a black comedian from Alabama in his 30's - who all felt like the docu-series opened their eyes to racial issues they didn't know existed. All exemplifying how this story transcends sports, race, geography and age. It is hitting the hearts and minds of every person watching it.
The project obviously tells the story of the rise and fall of an American hero in O.J. Simpson. We are all aware of the skeleton of the story through the 1994 murder trial. However, the way Ezra Edelman blatantly laid the foundation of racism in the U.S. and Los Angeles leading up to and juxtaposing O.J.'s college and professional career was just beautifully executed, so well done. There was no dancing around issues both in what other black athletes were facing or how O.J. didn't want to identify as even being black while other prominent black athletes of his era like Muhammed Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar risked their careers for black civil rights advocacy.
This ESPN series - much like FX's American Crime Story series - then meticulously illustrated how race became the key component of the murder trial and the strategy that the defense eventually used to acquit Simpson of murder. Race, racism, racist words, the depiction of O.J. being a part of the black community and playing with a black vs. white emotion around racism were all used in a tug-of-war like manner to win the case. These narratives were never addressed during the trial probably because of the prosecution's unwillingness to challenge this false illustration for fear of being accused of being racist themselves.
So a hearty bravo to ESPN, Conor Schnell, Ezra Edelman and everyone who was part of this project. Being lucky enough to have incredibly talented filmmakers mentor me in this industry, I've learned that the point of film is to move the audience, teach them something they didn't know, enlighten them and make them think differently about themselves. OJ: Made In America has done this. ESPN is finally using it's broad, strong shoulders to take on social issues as told through sports stories. I hope it continues because these stories are too important not to be told. It's refreshing to see these truths being revealed now, 20+ years later and especially by a sports media giant acknowledging that there is a greater social responsibility in fairly telling this story.